Archives for posts with tag: kinship terminology

further to the point of when did the arabs start marrying their fathers’ brothers’ daughters (fbd marriage), from kudelin (2005) – “Family-Matrimonal Relations in the 5th-7th Centuries Arabia and Their Reflection in the Early Arabic Poetry” [pgs. 8-9]:

“According to one point of view, in the 5th-7th century Arabia there was a decay of the communal-clan system which was reflected, in particular, in the ‘tendency towards isolation of a consanguine group by regulating family and matrimonial relations’ with the transformation of such group from an exogamic into an endogamous one. At that period the exogamic form of marriage was gradually losing its ‘oneness and ubiquity’ and edogamy was becoming firmly established. Obviously, during some period of time both forms of marriage coexisted simultaneously….

“Consistent introduction of paternal relations and the distribution of endogamy lead to such well-known form of matrimonial relations as [fbd] marriage which prevailed on the Arabic Peninsula from the 6th-7th century. In the conditions of the growing role of endogamy in this period the most suitable spouses in the Arabic society were ‘a son of an uncle on the father’s side’ (*ibn ‘amm*) and ‘a daughter of an uncle on the father’s side (*bint ‘amm*). If a girl did not have a first cousin, the right to marry her passed to the patrilineal cousins of further degrees. Usually the right did not pass further than the girl’s cousins of the third or fourth degrees…. In case of divorce, the right for the woman passed to other patrilineal cousins, beginning from the closest degree of kinship. An agnatic cousin had the right not to marry his relative, while she could not marry anyone else without his consent. An exterior competitor had to ask a patrilineal cousin for his permission and even pay him ‘compensation’….

“The coexistence of the exogamic and the endogamous forms of marriage in the 5th-7th century Arabia was reflected in the early Arabic poetry and determined its uniqueness.”

so it looks as though that, thanks to a quirky twist of history (the fall of the roman empire, perhaps?), the arabs adopted the form of cousin marriage that leads to the most inbreeding (fbd marriage) at just around the same time that europeans (especially northwest europeans) began to abandon cousin marriage altogether. how’s THAT for a clash of civilizations?!

there should be more on this here in robertson smith’s Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, which i haven’t looked at yet.

around three or four hundred years after europeans started taking the medieval church’s cousin marriage bans seriously (ca. the 800s judging by the franks — ymmv), european languages shifted to reflect this change in mating patterns. a general term for “cousins” (and aunts and uncles) became the norm, replacing the older terms which specified “mother’s brother’s daughter” or whatever. it was no longer necessary to distinguish the “bint ‘amm” (father’s brother’s daughter in arabic) or “biǎo” cousins (cousins other than those descended from the father’s brother in chinese [mandarin?]) because all cousins were now off limits as far as marriage was concerned. this linguistic shift occurred between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries in german and also happened in english, french, etc. (interestingly, a similar linguistic shift happened in ancient greek, indicating…?)

the funny thing is, though, that the same linguistic shift also happened in italian, even though plenty of (especially southern) italians kept right on marrying their cousins — up until, like, yesterday. well, now i’ve stumbled across some historic regional differences in kinship terminology in italy. from “Land, Kinship, and Consanguineous Marriage in Italy From the Seventeenth To the Nineteenth Centuries” [pgs. 532-533]:

“In a rural town of Calabria in the province of Catanzaro, patrilateral parallel cousins were called *cugini giusti* (right cousins), or *surrea* and *frateu* in the case of the patrilateral parallel female and male cousins, respectively….

“At Prodo, in Umbria, we find virtually the same terminology as in Calabria. The strongest bond was between the males; patrilateral parallel cousins were called ‘brother-cousins,’ while others were simply called cousins….

“In Desulo, first cousins through brothers were known as *karrales*, and even second cousins, the sons of *karrales*, were referred to as *ermanos primargios*.”

so there you go. and there’s only something on the order of a million and one dialects in italy, so who knows how many different terms there might be for cousins in “italian” (and how those terms might differ regionally)?

from anglo-saxon england, from the laws of wulfstan (d.1023), apparently the punishment (or one of the punishments) for violating the incest laws was a fine — a fine reckoned based upon how closely you were related to your partner in crime. sounds like it was a bit like applying some sort of wergeld calculation in order to try to enforce the cousin marriage bans. never heard this before [pg. 227]:

“There is particular concern and precision in the laws associated with Wulfstan: ‘if anyone commits incest, he is to pay compensation according to the degree of relationship, whether by wergeld or by fine or by all his possessions. It is not equal whether a man has intercourse with his sister, or with a more distant relation.’ Laws composed by Wulfstan prohibited marriage ‘within the sixth degree of relationship, that is within the fourth knee [*cneowe*]’, thus prohibiting marriage to fourth cousins, or marriage ‘with the widow of a man as nearly related to him as this’.”


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i’ve got this idea that the more specific a group’s mating patterns, the more specific their kinship terms — and vice versa.

so, if you’re the arabs, and you prefer father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage, you’ll have some rather specific kinship terms for all of your different aunts and uncles and cousins, because you want to be able to identify who your bint ‘amm is. if you’re the chinese, and you have an historic preference for mother’s brother’s daughter (mbd) marriage, you’ll also have specific kinship terms for all of your relatives. in fact, both of these societies have the most complicated of kinship terminology systems: the sudanese kinship system.

on the other hand, if you’re not picky about which cousin you can marry OR if all of your cousins are off-limits (like in christian europe), then you might not bother to designate any differences between your cousins (or other relatives). in the hawaiian kinship system, for instance, the only differentiation between relatives is sex and age, so all your brothers and male cousins are just “brother” and all your sisters and female cousins are just “sister.” and in traditional hawaiian society, marriage was very flexible.

meanwhile, in pre-christian europe, most all european populations had different terms for male and female, paternal and maternal cousins — like the arabs or chinese. after converting to christianity and adopting the church’s cousin marriage bans, the kinship terminology shifted to one in which cousins were no longer individually identified (see, for example, German Kinship Terms, 750-1500: Documentation and Analysis and this previous post). as michael mitterauer describes, this process took a few hundred years to happen [pgs. 68-69]:

“Fundamental trends in the changing kinship systems in Europe can best be deduced from the modified kinship terms in various European languages. Initially, terminological analyses will only yield very general clues that other indicators can differentiate and refine. Above all, these analyses cannot allow us to conclude anything about how some of the concepts used mirror a certain contemporaneous social order. Kinship terminology often outlasted by hundreds of years the conditions that gave rise to it. We frequently come upon phenomena of cultural lag when tapping this linguistic source in the attempt to learn about historical kinship systems, but that a change in a social situation must have preceded a change in vocabulary lies beyond a shadow of doubt.

so what does any of this have to do with archaic greece (800 BC – 480 BC)? (or classical greece and athens for that matter?)

well, from mitterauer again we have [pg. 69]:

“Greek was the first European language to eliminate the terminological distinction between the father’s and mother’s side, a transition that began as early as between the fifth and third century BC.35

so that’s just at the transition point between archaic greece and classical greece. but starting at least in the early part of the archaic period and lasting throughout to the classical period the archaic greeks were outbreeding! at least the upper class ones were — difficult/impossible to know about the lower classes. from Women in Ancient Greece [pg. 67]:

“Marriages were arranged by the prospective groom and the prospective bride’s guardian, and the wife usually (although not always) went to live with her husband’s family. In the early Archaic Age [800 BC – 480 BC], to judge from the evidence of Homer’s poems (e.g. ‘Odyssey’ 4.5), male members of the upper classes generally married women who were not related to them, and who came from different areas. This upper-class habit of exogamy — marrying outside the community — was related to the political importance which marriage possessed in these circles. Marriage exchanges were one of the means by which noble families created political alliances with groups living in other areas, and in this way they made a considerable contribution to the aristocracy’s stranglehold on power. This practice survived to the end of the Archaic Age. However, with the emergence of the *polis*, exogamy began to give way in some places to endogamy — to marriage within the community. For the upper classes, this meant marriage within a tight circle of aristocratic families living in the same *polis*.”

so there was outbreeding in archaic greece for a few hundred years (at least amongst the upper classes), and, then, eventually — after about 400 years or so — there was a linguistic shift to more general kinship terms which reflected that outbreeding. in other words, there was a lag time between the “social situation” (or mating patterns) and the linguistic shift in the kinship terms. in medieval german, the shift to more general terms for cousins began in the 1100s, about 300-600 years after the cousin marriage bans arrived in northern europe (depending on what region you look at).

that’s all for now. more anon!

previously: loosening of genetic ties in europe started before christianity? and demokratia

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from Ecological Sensitivity and Resistance of Cultures in Asia (southeast asia in particular) published in 1978(!):

“Ecological influences on culture have been demonstrated by several investigators. Many such studies have been done in Asia where two ecological niches extend over vast areas. One of these is the highland or mountainous territory 500 meters above sea level; the other consists of plains and plateaus under 500 meters….

“…The HRAF files were used to compare cultures in the highlands with those in the lowlands. The files indicate that certain items may be ecology sensitive (that is, more apt to change with ecologic shift). These include agricultural methods, sociopolitical organization and preferred marriage forms….

“Sociopolitical Organization. … Lowland societies had larger communities, larger states, more nonhereditary local head-men, complex social distinctions, and exogamy. More lowland [sic – should be upland] groups had small communities, small states, hereditary headmen, no exogamy, and less complex class distinctions.

“Family, Marriage and Kinship. … Eskimo/Hawaiian cousin terms corresponded to the quadrilateral/nonlateral cousin marriages found in lowland cultures. Iroquois/Omaha/Crow cousin terms were found in association with matrilineal/patrilineal cousin marriages in the highlands….”

eskimo kinship terms are the ones that we use in the anglo/western world, and the eskimo kinship system is a very generalized one — eg. we don’t distinguish between maternal or paternal cousins, they’re all just “cousins.” so lowland southeast asians have similar kinship terms to us — or they use the hawaiian system which is even more generalized — all your brothers and male cousins are just “brother” and all your sisters and female cousins are just “sister.”

the iroquois, omaha, and crow systems used by the uplanders are all more complex, each distinguishing cousins in different ways — but none of them are as complex as the sudanese system which is the one used in the arab world — and in china. and it used to be used by the anglo-saxons before the Big Change in kinship terms in medieval europe.


“As observed by previous students of southeast Asia, the most parsimonious explanation for these sociopolitical and marriage findings is the production of surplus food in the lowlands. Intensive agriculture favors both increased population density and increased total population. Communities become larger, nation states are formed, and kingship comes into existence. The cetripetal nature of kingship government probably accounts for nonhereditary local headmen replacing hereditary headmen. Surplus rice allows a money economy, towns, a priestly class, social stratification, teachers, and writing.

“Swidden agriculturists in the highlands, on the other hand, maintain simple social and political organization. Small groups migrate more easily, keeping themselves politically and socially intact during and after the move. Each family, even that of the village chief, must raise its own food. Class stratification is simple and large towns are nonexistent. There are part-time shamans, but no priestly class. Even though writing systems (such as Chinese ideography) are near at hand and readily usable, absence of surplus food and large communities obstruct the development of literacy. Such small autonomous communities, numbering between 50 and 400 persons, do not form nation states.

These data again demonstrate the political role of preferred marriage forms. Exogamy and lack of cousin marriage within large lowland nation-states aid in uniting disparate clans and villages. By contrast, the absence of exogamy and the presence of preferred cousin marriage intensify relationships within the small upland social units. Among both societies, the preferred marriage types comprise a social strategy that reinforces the political organization of the group.


i wonder if these se asian “swidden agriculturalists” are/were also pastoralists (since cousin marriage and pastoralism seem to go together — see the arab world), or if just living in a marginal — and remote — upland environment is enough to push a group towards inbreeding, irregardless of whether one’s group is pastoralist or agriculturalist?

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…are really, really complicated! (‘sup with that, s.e.?!) mind you, the greeks have a pretty complex kinship terminology system with 32 names for first-cousins. (the effects of too much ouzo, presumably. opa!) but still — the chinese distinguish between their paternal great elder uncles versus their paternal great younger uncles. what the h*ck?!:

“The development of the system of Chinese kinship terms is, first and foremost, influenced by the family-centered economy in Chinese tradition. For thousands of years, people in rural areas have been living separately in small villages. In many cases a village constitutes a large family. All the villagers share one family name and have the same ancestors. A village usually has a temple called the hall of ancestors in which all the memorial tablets (pieces of wood written with the names of the dead symbolizing the souls of them) of the ancestors are placed and worshipped. Inside this big family, members are labeled with specific kinship terms according to their age, generation, sex, and other factors such as marriage. They can never get confused about their relations with the other members. For example, if one’s father has three elder brothers and two younger brothers, then he can call them, respectively, first bo fu, second bo fu, third bo fu, first shu fu and second shu fu. In the broad family (the village) the ordinal number becomes even higher. You may hear someone call another villager seventh bo mu or ninth shu fu. Because people of this village consider themselves the same as a family writ-large, incest is firmly prohibited. One can never marry his aunt even if he is older than her; and very often people of the same age are from different generations….

“The over-emphasis on the differences between consanguineal and affinal relations might be another reason why Chinese have so many terms for kinsmen. As previously mentioned, maternal grandfather and grandmother in the Chinese language are wai zu fu and wai zu mu, with wai literally meaning outside…. [T]he dividing line between consanguineal and affinal relations, which has created so many kinship terms, still exists.” [source]

chinese villages sound like greek villages — everybody’s a member of one big family — although in greek villages there is typically more than one surname.

like chinese (and greek), german and english used to have more designations for all the different family members, including in-laws (affinal relatives). but once we started marrying out, it stopped being so essential to be so specific. if the goal is no longer to marry one’s father’s brother’s daughter (or whomever), then why need to differentiate them from other cousins? also, if you can no longer marry ANY of your cousins, you can just slap one label on them — cousin — and be done with it. that person is a cousin of mine? ok — can’t marry ’em!

btw, that’s how we got the crazy “in-law” label. someone is your “sister-in-law” in canon law, i.e. in the eyes of the church. you see, when you marry your wife, you become “one flesh” (in the eyes of the christian church). and if you really do that in a some sort-of miraculous way, then you couldn’t possibly ever marry your wife’s sister (say if your wife died) ’cause that would be exactly the same as marrying your sister! ewwww.

see also: “The Cultural Connotations and Communicative Functions of Chinese Kinship Terms”

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several of my previous posts discuss how, during the medieval period, the christian church in europe — along with tptb of the dayaltered the mating patterns of europeans by (at least trying to) put a stop to cousin marriage amongst the natives, a practice that would lead to a loosening of the genetic ties between the members of the population(s).

jack goody suggests that this was a new and strange policy without precedent invented by the church fathers, i.e. there was no foundation for banning cousin marriage in the bible or in roman society from whence a lot of the church fathers came.

that seems to be pretty right from what i’ve read, but michael mitterauer says that this move toward greater outbreeding might’ve started earlier in ancient greece (was it related to this?) and that the holy roman catholic church’s policies may have simply been part of a wider trend.

mitterauer, who i’m going to quote at length below because i just found what he had to say so doggone interesting, sums up all the linguistic changes related to kinship that happened across europe after the mating laws changed. i mentioned before that i thought that kinship terms indicate who you can and cannot marry — now it seems, from what mitterauer has to say, that they mostly indicate who you cannot marry. (so, back to hawaii for a sec, since everyone of your age [in your village, presumably] were called either “brother” or “sister,” this must have meant that you couldn’t marry any of them. and this makes sense, because any of them could’ve been your real brother or sister!)

ok. big quote from mitterauer [pgs. 68-74]:

“Fundamental trends in the changing kinship systems in Europe can best be deduced from the modified kinship terms in various European languages…. Three major transformational processes illustrate this statement with regard to European kinship systems.

“We can describe the first fundamental trend in the shifting of European kinship terms as the gradual appearance of the same, or parallel, terms for paternal and maternal relatives, which is best shown in the expressions for a parent’s siblings. All the Indo-European languages of Europe originally distinguished between the father’s brother or sister and the mother’s brother or sister. Take Latin as an example: the father’s siblings were called patruus and amita, and on the mother’s side, avunculus and matertera. In Middle High German the terms were Vetter and Base, Oheim and Muhme. As the history of almost every European language evolved, distinctions between paternal and maternal relatives became neutral. And so French used oncle for both parents’ brother (derived from the Latin word for a maternal uncle, avunculus) and tante for either parent’s sister (following from the Latin word amita, a paternal sister). These bilaterally applied terms spilled over into other languages, for instance, English and German. Similar parallel nomenclatures developed that were based on kinship terms in one’s own language, in Polish, for example. Greek was the first European language to eliminate the terminological distinction between the father’s and the mother’s side, a transition that began as early as between the fifth and third century BC. Vulgar Latin in late antiquity was next. All the Romance languages derived from Vulgar Latin have the same terms for both sides of the family: Italian, Sardic, Rhaeto-Romance, Provencal, French, Catalan, Spanish, Portugese, Sephardic Spanish, Aromunian, and Rumanian. This process was therefore complete by the early Middle Ages throughout the territory of the old Roman Empire. The first Germanic language to undergo this change was English, beginning with the Norman Conquest. Basically the same change occurred in German in early modern times. There were two different developments in the Scandinavian languages. One tended to completely equate the father’s and mother’s siblings by using the same terms; the other did too, but formed compound words to differentiate the sides of the family. This was the case, for example, with farbror and morbror in Swedish, and with analogous forms in Icelandic and Scottish English. These descriptive compounds were fundamentally different from the completely independent terms for each parent’s siblings in the early phases of Indo-European languages. It was not a matter of eliminating the opposition between the paternal and the maternal sides but of essentially equating them, as is apparent from the structure of the terms themselves. And in the majority of the Slavic languages, too, the process of parallelizing outlined above took place, first in Czech and Polish, relatively late in Russian. The Slavic languages in the Balkans, on the other hand, have retained a differentiating terminology for kinship to this day: Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, and Bosnian still have concepts distinguishing between a paternal and a maternal brother. The same holds for Albanian, where even parents’ sisters are differentiated. In this region the great process of transforming European kinship terminology, which emanated from southeastern Europe 2,500 year ago, has not yet reached its end.

A second fundamental trend in the transformation of European kinship terminology is the use of identical terms for blood relatives and in-laws. This paralleling process was also at work in Vulgar Latin during late antiquity. The term cognati at first referred to blood relatives who were not under the authority of the pater familias. Sometime around the fourth century, this concept underwent a substantial expansion: it came to include ‘affined’ relationships (the Latin affinis refers to persons related by marriage). The word affinis therefore fell into disuse in late antiquity and was replaced by cognati. In-law now became, through marriage, like blood relatives. This sense of cognati survives in kinship terms in the Romance languages. The trend of using the same terms is even more pronounced in another terminological complex. French, Dutch, English, and German have a suite of concepts for relatives by marriage that is formed from compounds made from the designations for nuclear family members. Beau-pere corresponds to schoonvader, ‘father-in-law’ to Schwiegervater, belle-mere to ‘mother-in-law.’ The same goes for beau-frer, belle-soeur, beau-fils, and belle-fille. All these related people had no names in Latin or Old High German that were in any way similar to the names for their closest blood relatives. Originally, the terms in all Indo-European languages for relatives by marriage were unmistakably different from those for blood relatives….

“The third basic trend in the transformation of the European kinship terminology is unique by its very nature and therefore especially instructive for understanding the whole process of change: the increasing number of parallels in the nomenclature of blood relatives and so-called spiritual relatives. A spiritual kinship was originally established by sponsorship at baptism. Then, in the wake of this model, other relationships came into existence that were created around other sacraments — relationships that eventually were regarded as kinship. In general, ties that were instituted on a religious basis were conceived of as kinship ties…. Inside Europe, it is found during the Middle Ages only in societies converted to Christianity….

The decisive factor in this great transformation of kinship terminology in Europe was the influence of Christianity. This is more obvious in the parallel terms for blood and spiritual kinship than it is in the two basic trends discussed earlier. From an analytical perspective, we can distinguish three levels of influence: first, direct and intentional influence on kinship systems via canon law; second, indirect structural changes to fundamental elements of Christianity; and finally, the ramifications of traditions from classical antiquity that cannot be considered specifically Christian but that Christianity passed on to medieval societies.

The first type of influence incorporates first and foremost the church bans on marriage between relatives. These began in the fourth century and reached their zenith in the eleventh. The influence of the canonical norms is perfectly evident in the English terms for relatives through marriage such as ‘father-in-law,’ ‘daughter-in-law,’ and so forth. What is meant in these terms by the word ‘law’ is canon law. Even though a ‘law’ is not mentioned by name in similar, parallel terms, canon law is the motivating force behind them. The basic principles guiding the changes in terminology, or the assimilation of terms, were exactly the same as those in Christian churches that prohibited marriage between relatives. The development of unions categorized as incestuous was a highly complicated affair in the various Christian churches and was in no way uniform at all times and in all places. But these unions share some basic tendencies: the equating of the paternal and the maternal lines, of blood kin and kin by marriage, and the inclusion of spiritual kin in the family. It was easily recognized from the relevant bans on marriage who was seen in the early Middle Ages as being related to whom from a Christian standpoint, and the bans were added to, step by step, right up into the High Middle Ages. We find it difficult to comprehend today just how preoccupied the era was with the fear of incest — and not only in the various Christian churches but in Jewish circles as well….

That the great transformational process of European kinship terminology must also have had pre-Christian roots is clear from a sequence of events over a long period of time. The rudimentary beginnings are found in the Greek language from the fifth to the third century BC, and it is very likely that broader considerations further influenced these processes. Traditional ancient Greek kinship terminology was probably transmitted just the way ancient Greek traditions were, by and large within a Christian context. The term ‘brother’ can serve as a concrete example. The expansion of the concept of ‘brother’ beyond blood kinship in several Romance languages led to the emergence of a new term for the biological brother. This can surely be traced back to a Christian influence, but the phenomenon itself is not genuinely Christian. In various Eastern religious communities, strangers became ‘brothers’ by means of initiation ceremonies. The teachings of the Stoics spread the term even further. The use of ‘brother’ in urban contexts for a brother in office or a fraternity brother goes back a long way. Hellenistic urban cultures may be regarded as the social foil for this phenomenon, which, thanks to Christianity, continued to live and have an effect on medieval European societies….”

edit: boilerplate and boilerplate 2.0

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